Interview with Jerry B. Jenkins
I highly recommend Taylor University’s Professional Writing Program! (Disclaimer: I taught in the program for 15 years, so please don’t judge it by me.)
But if it’s not possible, the next best thing—with the same high caliber of classes and instructors as well as a vibrant online community—is The Jerry Jenkins Writers Guild. (Disclaimer: No, he didn’t pay me to say that and I don’t get a commission for referrals. Sigh.)
I was honored to be interviewed by my friend for his “Masters Class” video series. Here’s the transcript:
Welcome to this month’s Master Class, where I ask industry experts the questions you’d ask if you had the chance. My guest today is long-time friend and colleague Jim Watkins. We’ve worked together at various and sundry writers conferences over the years. Jim is an award-winning author of over 20 books and 2,000 articles and has spoken across the United States as well as in Africa, Asia, Australia, and Europe.
He’s served as an editor and editorial director at Wesleyan Publishing House, an editor with the American Bible Society, taught writing at Taylor University in Indiana for 15 years, and has guest-lectured at Liberty, Regent, and other universities. He’s currently writing and speaking full-time as well as consulting in book development. Welcome, Jim!
Thanks, Jerry. It’s a joy to be with you. One of my favorite things is teaching writing and encouraging writers.
Take us back to when you were unknown and unpublished. How did you get into this racket and what was the first thing you had published?
I think I was in second grade when I thought the ending of Pinocchio too far-fetched. (Now I know it’s called violating “suspension of disbelief.) So, I had the “live” puppet die a prolonged, painful death of Dutch Elm disease.
So, I’ve always loved writing. Started writing for high school paper as a sophomore, moved up to entertainment editor junior year and editor senior year. My first nationally published article was as a college freshman to my denominational magazine. It’s a great place to start.
And what about your first book?
Actually, I never wrote a proposal or got a ream of rejection slips like most. I was actually asked to write it. I was an editor at WPH when the Nazarene House, Beacon Hill asked me to write it. I had been writing a column for a few years in a teen magazine and those were compiled into a devotional book.
The next two were similar. Publishers had seen what I was writing in periodicals and so Bridge and Tyndale House picked up my articles on sexuality for books. That why I encourage authors to start with periodicals. My first three books were basically compilations from Sunday school take homes.
Many Guild members are writing their memoirs. Squeezing Good Out of Bad is pretty autobiographical, and you’re quite open in it—which I advise memoirists to be. I’ve heard you talk about your C in Freshman Composition, hundreds of rejection slips, poor sales figures, clinical depression, mild autism, broken relationships, cancer, four surgeries in three hospitals in two months, etc. How did you find the courage to share all that you did and how did you determine what to include?
I started out as a youth pastor and quickly learned that teens . . . and adults . . . respond best to stories and especially stories from vulnerable, flawed speakers.
I remember speaking to a group of adults in a message I called “I’m a Mess. You’re a Mess. That’s Why We Have a Messiah.” I talked about how God had used flawed people: Moses the vigilante killer, Samson the playboy judge, David the adulterer and murder for hire king. I believe it was the first time I really opened up about what a mess I am. Afterward, a woman came up to me sobbing and gave me a bear hug that nearly broke my ribs and said, “I’m so glad there’s another person who is such a mess.
Since then I’ve been trying to be as vulnerable and authentic as possible. That doesn’t mean I use writing and speaking as group therapy. I only share those things that will be helpful to my audience. I don’t share to make me feel better, but to make them feel better. There are still deep hurts and flaws that would probably not be helpful to share.
But I love 2 Corinthians 1 where Paul writes:
All praise to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is our merciful Father and the source of all comfort. He comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort others. When they are troubled, we will be able to give them the same comfort God has given us. For the more we suffer for Christ, the more God will shower us with his comfort through Christ.
You’re known primarily in the inspirational market, yet you’ve won an award for crossing over into the general market. What’s the key to writing for that market?
I have a whole hour talk on that, but just to summarize:
• Write in the Cross Roads on subjects of interest to the Christian and general market.
• Write in Cross Currents. What is something both camps are talking about.
• Write with Cross Words. Avoid Christian-ese.
• Write in the Power of the Cross. Spend as much time praying as you do writing.
You can read the whole talk at Crossing Over with the Cross.
You’ve sold articles to dozens of magazines and websites. What would you advise our members trying to build their platforms, especially when it comes to nonfiction?
As I mentioned earlier, Sunday school take-homes are a great place to start. There’s little competition—and little pay—but you’re building up your portfolio of published work.
But the three secrets to succeeding in periodicals or book are:
It’s true: It’s not what you know, but who you know. Okay, you have to have developed your craft, but others at the next level will pull you to the next level. You don’t get ahead by pushing, you getting ahead by being pulled by those at the next level.
That’s why writers’ conferences are so important. There’s only one book that’s been published that I haven’t personally pitched the book at a conference. But that was because I had met an agent at a conference, signed with her, and she personally pitched it.
It’s networking that got me my job at WPH, that got my 20 books and 2,000-plus articles published, that got me on the writers’ conference speaking circuit for the past 30 years, and allowed me to teach for 15 years at Taylor University. I knew somebody who knew somebody.
As you know, news travels fast in the publishing business. You’ve gained a reputation for being good to work with. What’s the key to that and how important is it?
I think being an editor for 20 years has taught me the do’s and don’ts of working with editors.
Never say “God told me to write this.” If that’s the case, God’s writing skills have really deteriorated since the Revelation.
Always be teachable—your writing did not come down from Mount Sinai—it’s flawed and needs an editor;s help.
Don’t just make deadlines, turn in copy early. I’ve tried to turn in books at least a month early and articles at least a week early. I turned in two books right after double-hernia surgery, so like most editors I believe deadlines mean you’re dead if your pass that line.
Most important don’t argue with an editor. We’re flawed human beings, but we know writing and the marketplace. Please make gentle suggestions, but you’re not going to win a nasty argument.
Is there a secret to writing for the Inspirational market in a way that doesn’t come across as preachy?
Sure. Just do a FIND and REPLACE of your manuscript for the word “You.” You comes across as a pointed finger scolding the reader. Replace with “Our.” Come along side your reader, put your arm around their shoulder, and say, “I know what you’re going through. I’ve been there. Let’s walk through this issue together.”
I won an award of merit in a Christianity Today “Book of the Year” contest where the readers—in this case teens—were the judges, and so they sent me the judging sheets. One judge wrote, “Jim Watkins is no author.” Teens can be so cruel. But she went on to write, “No, it’s like he’s sitting down with you at McDonalds sharing Diet Cokes.” Okay, I can live without being an author. Just the guy at McD’s sharing Diet Coke.
If you write in that humble, loving, fellow-traveler position, you won’t sound preachy.
When and where do you typically write?
I’m definitely a morning person, so my prime time is 8 am until noon. I try to have an hour of time alone with God when I get up at 6 to get my heart and mind in the right place. Then, I use my prime time for prime writing. I use the afternoons for paper work, emailing, social media. And then by 5 pm, my brain cells are shutting down for the night. If you’re a night owl, after the kids are in bed maybe best for you.
Back in the Jurassic Journalism age, we had typewriters or word processors the size of steamer trunks, so we were basically wrote confined to one spot. I love having my office and thousands of files, along with the entire Internet with me wherever I go on my laptop. So I write in my office, but also spend a lot of time in my comfy recliner or if it’s nice out, on the front porch.
However, in my office, I have the solid oak desk that my dad and I built when I was in high school. And so from my high school paper days until now, that’s been where I’ve written. So I think there’s an advantage that the desk is associated with writing. So, when I sit at it, my brain immediately thinks, Uh oh! Woe! Jim’s at this writing desk. I need to shift into writing mode. So, that even with a laptop, it’s often helpful to have a spot associated with writing and only writing.
Do you hand-write or create at the keyboard?
I had a crusty high school journalism teacher who had been the city editor at a Chicago newspaper: a hardcore, hard news woman with ink in her veins. We were forced to compose at the typewriter, because that’s how real reporters wrote. That was such good training and now with word processors, there’s no reason to write long hand.
That said, an editor who worked for me at WPH insisted writing first drafts with a fountain pen. She loved the smell of ink and the feel of paper. She was a brilliant writer, so I stopped nagging her about composing on the screen. So, like using your prime time for prime writing, use the writing method that brings out your best writing.
Tell me about your editing and revising routine.
My writing modus operandi is vomit, clean up, repeat. Ann Lamott advises—and I’m paraphrasing—“Write poopy first drafts.” Sean Connery in the movie Finding Forrester is much more elegant: “Write the first draft with your heart, the second draft with you head.” I love that.
Just pour out—throw up—your thoughts on the screen or paper as fast as you can write them. Don’t worry about spelling or grammar. If you can’t think of just the right word, type XXXXs but keep going. Don’t stop while the muse is going manic! Then go back later and rewrite.
Vomit, clean up, repeat.
Well, on that graphic image, let me say thanks so much for taking the time to do this, Jim.
Thank you. I love helping writers, and they can go to jameswatkins.com for a whole ream of free writing resources.
Copyright © 2020 Jerry Jenkins Writers Guild and James N. Watkins
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